The Epidemic of Over-Explaining Science Fiction

What is wrong with this scene?

Think about this question for a while, because there is a lot wrong with this scene. While the Wachowski siblings did set a precedent for these kind of overly verbose scenes in the first Matrix film, with Morpheus explaining the intricacies of the matrix and the real world, this scene from The Matrix Reloaded perfectly presents the mistake many science fiction films make.

Science fiction is a form of fiction which utilizes fantastic themes, and ideas, which are based on some sort of scientific platform. This includes stories that deal with subjects like time travel, space, futuristic cities, parallel universes, aliens, robot sentience, and much more. As you can imagine, these themes and stories are incredibly complex, intricate, and difficult to pull apart in the context of a 90 to 120 minute film.

The Matrix trilogy is telling the story of Neo, and utilizing religious imagery, and metaphors, to tell a story -- none of this is necessarily subtle. But, at its core, the Matrix films are science fiction films -- the premise of these films are based around a war between robots and humans.

So you've thought about the question that I opened this with; let's return to it. What is wrong with this scene?

In my mind, the existence of this scene is the problem.

As I mentioned before, these themes are incredibly complex. Explaining them within the confines of a relatively short runtime would be futile; films that push the limits of theatrical runtimes (The Matrix being one of them (the trilogy clocks in at 409 minutes in total, or roughly 6.7 hours). So why do writers and directors constantly try to explain their film to the audience? If it is extremely difficult to explain the small details of a sci-fi theme, why try and do it with a scene of expository dialogue?

It's not just The Matrix that suffers from this, as you can imagine. A wide array of modern science-fiction films fall into this trip of over-explaining their plot, or the 'scientific' aspect of their narrative.

This scene from Source Code also helps exemplify what I'm talking about.

The explanation of what "the source code" is doesn't add much to the plot of the film. It only clarifies the scientific aspect of the film, while wasting three minutes in the process. While three minutes may not seem like a lot, when you put it in the context of the film's 93 minute runtime, that's 3% of the film dedicated to a scene which doesn't do much to benefit the film itself. In fact, the majority of the information in this scene is information we, as viewers, are already aware of. 

So essentially what we have in Source Code, like we have in The Matrix Reloaded, like we have in a variety of science-fiction films, is a relatively large portion of the runtime dedicated to just explaining the "science-ey" stuff, if you will, in the plot.

What fun is that? What benefit does that offer us? And, most importantly, why do writers do it?

Let's start with that last question first: why do writers do it? 

There are a number of reasons why writers over-explain elements of their film -- this is true across all genres, not just in science fiction. This comes down to one of three things (or a mix of them):

1. Bad screenwriting habits

The first one is the easiest to dissect: everyone starts out somewhere. It's possible that the screenwriter is either very new to screenwriting, or that they are in the habit of relying on poor screenwriting tricks to tell their story (i.e. using flashbacks to explain plot information, using narration to explain expository details, etc.). This can be fixed with consistent writing, reading screenplays from a variety of writers, and getting constructive criticism on current work.

I recently watched a film called Uncanny, which is available on Netflix, that displays this kind of a amateur reliance on expositional dialogue to explain its scientific narrative. You can even see this in its trailer.

I am even guilty of this with my films. It can be hard, especially with dialogue, to strike a balance between intriguing and clear. You don't want to lose your audience, but you also want to make sure your dialogue is unique, well-written, and crisp. This is difficult to do without practice; that is, both for better and for worse, the only solution to this specific problem.

2. A lack of trust in the target audience

This is a very big part of why so many films, and so many science-fiction films, are being excessively explained. Put simply, writers don't trust you -- or, at least, they don't trust you to understand their themes, or their narrative, without explicit clarity.

This can be seen all throughout big Hollywood films. In an effort to make the most money, and to cater to the widest demographic possible (filmmaking is a business, after all), it is not uncommon for writers to overly-clarify something, especially when it comes to dialogue, so their is no confusion as to what is going on. This is true of films I love, too.

Christopher Nolan is the perfect example of a writer/director (though his brother is often the credited writer on many projects) whose dialogue is unusually on-the-nose and expository. His films are enjoyable, and I find myself consistently impressed with their ambition, and his penchant for cerebral spectacle. However, no one could ever call Christopher Nolan subtle with a straight face.

The same is true of directors like Neil Blomkamp. District 9 is an incredible sci-fi film, and yet it opens with the most boring, expositional scene that is completely devoid of any subtlety. It uses the documentary style for realism, but imparts the same information scrolling text, narration, or dialogue would. In this way, it's not really doing anything different.

There is no real solution to this, because this is most noticeable in high budget films. That means that this problem is intrinsically linked with the final one.

3. Pressure from studios, producers, or financiers

Every filmmaker takes marching orders from someone, and everything in the film business is based around profit. Therefore, a lot of this insistence on clarity and expositional dialogue can be traced back to studios, producers, and financiers.

A studio's, and a producer's, goal is to market their film to a demographic that will make them money, and to invest on projects which will return, and capitalize on, said investment. That is why so many horror films are full of jump-scares and immediate thrills -- that's what audiences want to see right now, and that's what they pay for. That's why superhero films have become as popular as they are, and why so many actors, directors, and producers are jumping into bed with Marvel and DC -- these kinds of films make money, and tons of it.

So, in some respect, it's not surprising that sci-fi films are being over-explained; to get the widest audience possible, you need your material to be widely accessible. If you confuse your viewer, or require that they think about your film after the credits roll, you will lose money.

Hollywood has never been shy about this fact. What is surprising, though, is the widespread acceptance of these kinds of overt explanations, and the rejection of anything that is different, or less-than-overt.

Just compare this scene from the 2016 film, Midnight Special, and any of the other scenes I have presented you with.

Why is he wearing goggles? Why is his dad so forceful with protecting him? Why are their meteors falling to Earth? Why is the child apologizing for it?

This one scene produces so many questions, and yet it refuses to answer any of them. Why? Because the answers aren't important. What is important is that we understand that the kid has some sort of powers, that his father is protecting him from the world, and that they are going somewhere.

Yet none of the above is mentioned explicitly. Except for the ending of the phone call, where Michael Shannon's character says "we'll be there soon", the rest of this information is imparted through tone of voice, the juxtaposition of dialogue and imagery, and editing.

Midnight Special remains like this throughout its runtime. It refuses to answer the simple questions that it seems to raise, and instead does what all great sci-fi stories do: it tells a humanistic story with the backdrop of a fantastical scientific setting.

The critics loved the film, giving it a 76/100 on Metascore, and an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. So why don't films like this get made very often, especially today? Well, because Midnight Special only made $3.7 million of its $18 million budget back, has a 6.7/10 rating on IMDB, and a 67% audience rating from Rotten Tomatoes. In other words, these films aren't made because they don't make money, and because audiences don't want to see them.

What do audiences want to see? They want to see films like The Martian, which has a 8.0/10 rating on IMDB, a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Why do producers want to fund movies like The Martian? Because The Martian made 211% of its budget back at the box office.

I know what you're thinking: "does The Martian have a scene similar, or the same as, the other examples provided?" You bet your ass it does.

Now, I want to grant a couple of things, and, ironically enough, clarify some others.

Firstly, just because a film tends to placate its viewer with palatable metaphors and physical demonstrations, or a ton of dialogue from a character whose only purpose is to explain the film doesn't mean that the film will be bad. I like The Martian, and Interstellar, and many other science-fiction films that have come out, both from Hollywood and from the independent scene. Films are more about the sum of their parts than they are about any specific, individual aspects.

Secondly, with films about space travel or aliens (especially in our current era), there will always be a scene where an organization like NASA has to be involved; because of this, it's guaranteed there will be this kind of dialogue, both to assert the realism of the scenes, and to help clue in the viewer.

However, I do want to posit this notion: are these additions -- the continuous clarification, and explanation of science-fiction narratives -- beneficial to the respective stories as a whole?

Compare the opening of the 2011 film Melancholia to any science-fiction film you've seen recently. Melancholia's opening eight minutes has no dialogue, and no attempts at explanation. And yet, you understand exactly what is happening on a global scale, and you get an intrinsically unique, and intimate, understanding of specific characters.

Compare any of the "explanation" scenes I've described above with the ending scene sequence from Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (complete with the Pink Floyd track "Echoes" synced to the action).

This is twenty-three minutes of perfection, of science-fiction at its finest, most profound, and most beautiful. And yet it offers the viewer no dialogue, no explanations, and little coherence beyond what you are able to glean from the imagery, and the editing. Furthermore, Kubrick refused to explain the ending of the film.

2001 is a nonverbal experience; out of two hours and nineteen minutes of film, there are only a little less than forty minutes of dialog. I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content. To convolute McLuhan, in 2001 the message is the medium. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience that reaches the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does; to “explain” a Beethoven symphony would be to emasculate it by erecting an artificial barrier between conception and appreciation. You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film - and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping an audience at a deep level - but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to purchase or else fear he’s missed the point. I think that if 2001 succeeds at all, it is in reaching a wide spectrum of people who would not often give a thought to man’s destiny, his role in the cosmos and his relationship to higher forms of life. But even in the case of someone who is highly intelligent, certain ideas found in 2001, if presented as abstractions, would fall rather lifelessly and be automatically assigned to pat intellectual categories; as experiences in a moving visual and emotional context, however, they can resonate within the deepest fibers of one’s being.
— Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick understood the power of science-fiction, of how these scientifically based themes and stories can elevate human thinking, individualized stories, and profound thought. He understood, also, that through buying a ticket to the theater (or nowadays utilizing one of the many streaming services available), the viewer is, in essence, agreeing to give their time, and their thought, to a film. He understood that film is an art form, capable of entertaining, but also capable of imparting wisdom; it is as much upon the filmmaker to understand that as it is for the viewer.

If you would like to take anything away from my thoughts here, I recommend you take this: films can be good when approached from an entertainment-based philosophy (as they currently are). They can be masterpieces when they are approached from an artistic perspective.

Science-fiction has the unique ability to tell incredible, unthinkable stories all while grounded by a scientific platform.

With science-fiction things like time travel, and space travel, and aliens all seem within our grasp, and attainable.

When we use that power just to placate an audience, or an investor, we, as filmmakers, are wasting our time.